Story: French

Page 1. Explorers and missionaries

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The first French arrival was Captain Jean François Marie de Surville, who brought the St Jean Baptiste on a trading and exploratory expedition in 1769. His first sighting of New Zealand was of the Hokianga; from there he sailed around North Cape to Doubtless Bay. Initially he and his crew got on well with Māori in the area, but he eventually left under a shadow of misunderstanding. Wrongly believing Ngāti Kahu had stolen the ship’s boat, he burned houses and captured a chief, Ranginui. When de Surville sailed for Peru, he took Ranginui with him. Although the chief was treated well, he soon died of scurvy.

Ngāti Wiwi

Māori are also believed to have referred to early French explorers as ‘Ngati Wiwi’, after hearing them saying ‘oui oui’ (‘yes’, denoting agreement).  A 2004 symposium on the Pompallier mission in Russell was called ‘The French place in the Bay of Islands: Te Urunga Mai o te Iwi Wiwi’ (as was a subsequent book) in recognition of this.

In May 1772 Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne sailed the Mascarin into the Bay of Islands. His party made scientific observations, and traded and socialised with Māori. A few weeks later, however, du Fresne and 24 others were murdered. Hundreds of Māori were killed in retaliation. There are several theories to explain what the French did to anger Māori. They are known to have fished in sacred waters, thereby violating tapu, and were unaware of how their actions affected local politics and tribal rivalries. Whatever the real reason, Māori distrust of ‘the tribe of Marion’ remained for years.

The first truly scientific expedition was led by Louis Isidore Duperrey on the Coquille, which reached the Bay of Islands in April 1824. Duperrey surveyed the bay, met the Māori chief Hongi Hika, and later published his observations.

Also on board was Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville, who led a second expedition which reached New Zealand in 1827. From the west coast of the South Island he sailed towards Cook Strait, naming French Pass, D’Urville Island and Croisilles Harbour. He visited for a third time in 1840. Like other French explorers, Dumont d’Urville made a major contribution to the scientific knowledge of New Zealand. Included in these exploratory missions were French artists, whose works form a rich visual record of early nineteenth-century New Zealand.

French whalers appeared in the 1830s, mostly working off Banks Peninsula and Otago until the 1840s. Some eventually settled.

Novel discoveries

The voyages of Tasman and others had inspired French writers from as early as 1681. Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas the elder and Jules Verne subsequently drew on accounts of New Zealand contact.

The explorer Dumont d’Urville wrote an unpublished novel about New Zealand that was found in manuscript form after his death in 1842. Les Zélandais: histoire australienne is based on his encounters with Māori in 1824. Set in Northland, it relates the fortunes of the people of  Tiami [Taiāmai] and their chief. Dumont d’Urville depicts them sympathetically, as their lives are about to be changed dramatically by the arrival of Europeans.


The French had a major influence on the Catholic Church in New Zealand. The Pacific had been allocated by the Pope to French missionaries in 1829, and in 1835 the western portion including New Zealand was made a parish. Bishop Jean Baptiste François Pompallier was sent out to head the mission, and arrived in the Hokianga in 1838. The first bishop of any denomination in New Zealand, he became the leading light of the Catholic Church for the next 30 years.

Pompallier and his missionaries from the order of the Society of Mary (Marists) faced poverty, hardship, and opposition from Protestant missionaries and Māori who distrusted the French. But they quickly learned English and Māori, and in 10 years 5,000 people were baptised. Mission stations were established from north Auckland to Akaroa.

For Māori, becoming Catholic was a gesture of dissatisfaction with Protestant missionaries and the British Crown. But Catholicism did not remain associated with protest for long. During the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s, Pompallier abandoned the Māori mission and condemned the indigenous Pai Mārire religious movement. The new focus of the Catholic Church was to minister to the country’s Europeans.

The gold rushes of the 1860s took the priests to Southland, to work with the mining communities. French Marists were a significant part of the clergy in Wellington and Canterbury until around 1885, and remained until the 1930s. They made a substantial contribution to Catholic education.

The missionaries, and later the Sisters of Mercy, accomplished ground-breaking welfare work with Māori and Pākehā. As well as churches and chapels, they built schools, hospitals and orphanages. The most well-known missionary was Suzanne Aubert, who arrived in 1860 and founded the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.

Some Catholic orders maintained contact with France in the 2010s.

How to cite this page:

Tessa Copland, 'French - Explorers and missionaries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 February 2023)

Story by Tessa Copland, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 1 Feb 2016